Review: John Carter

I attended the IMAX 3D midnight screening of John Carter last night.  My main motivation for going was to pick up the Mondo poster (pictured below) that was being handed out to attendees of the IMAX screenings across the U.S. last night.  The promotional material for the film didn’t really do much to sell me on the movie.  Each time I saw the trailer I couldn’t help but think of a movie that was derivative of Avatar.  The film seemed entirely generic, especially with it’s title which tells you nothing about the film other than the characters name.  Disney’s desire to not go with the original title of John Carter of Mars perhaps wasn’t the best idea but oddly enough the title change works for the movie once you’ve seen it (more on that later).  It wasn’t until I started hearing positive word of mouth regarding the film that I started to take interest in the movie.  By the time I walked into the theater, I was actually looking forward to it, and for more than just the Mondo poster.

I’m not familiar at all with Edgar Rice Burrough’s novel Princess of Mars upon which the movie is based.  I’ve heard people talk about the 100 year-old story very briefly but that’s about it, so I have no basis of comparison on how it relates to the book.  However, I’m not sure many people who go see John Carter are familiar with Burrough’s book beyond awareness of its existence so I suppose my lack of knowledge regarding the novel levels the playing field amongst most of the movie-goers.  The film is directed by Andrew Stanton (WALL-E, Finding Nemo) and stars Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Mark Strong, Willem Dafoe, Ciarán Hinds, Dominic West and Samantha Morton.

(THE REST OF THE REVIEW MAY CONTAIN MINOR SPOILERS)

The film follows a civil war soldier, John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), who finds himself transported to Mars through the use of some fantastical device.  He’s unaware of where he is and while things seem somewhat odd yet familiar at first, Carter soon realizes he’s no longer on his planet after he encounters strange tribal alien creatures.  Due to the difference in gravity between Earth and Mars, Carter finds himself able to take long leaps through the air and his strength increased.  His abilities amaze the tribal aliens who eventually enlist Carter to be a warrior in their army.  Carter soon comes across a race of human looking Martians and gets caught up with a woman, Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), who is trying to get Carter to help fight to save her city and, ultimately, the planet.  Carter doesn’t want to get wrapped up in their problems and just wants to find a way home.  In his experiences with the various people/aliens he comes across, the wayward John Carter regains a purpose he thought had been long lost and finds his true home.

John Carter is very epic in scope, often times providing wide shots that provide scale and very beautiful landscapes.  The 3D really enhances that sense of scale and provides positive touches to the martian world.   The movie is really well crafted and Stanton does a great job in creating a sense of believability with all the CG work that was done in the film.  I don’t know that I would say that the green lizard-like creatures, the Tharks, are the best work I’ve seen in terms of photorealistic CG characters.  Don’t get me wrong, they did a really great job with them but they do stand out to me in some scenes as being a little cartoony, perhaps it’s the eyes or the coloring of the creatures.  That being said, as the movie plays out, you don’t notice these things anymore which is a compliment to Stanton, the actors and the screenwriters who all worked really hard in creating very real feeling and relatable characters.

Despite all the techno wizardry, the film feels very much like a classic sci-fi adventure story.  It’s pacing reflects that of an older adventure picture and at times I felt like John Carter evokes a sense of what George Lucas was trying to do with the original Star Wars in creating a fantastical pulpy story.  There are little bits of silly fun to be had, which I wasn’t quite expecting, that helps play into its pulpy nature.  John Carter adjusting to the gravity on Mars was amusing and his early interactions with Woola, an alien dog creature, were funny.  Woola actually may be one of my favorite characters from the film even if he’s essentially just a dog.  There was definitely a great sense of loyalty and friendship between the two even if they couldn’t really talk to each other.  One of the parts of the movie that stood out to me was when John and Woola are facing an army of incoming enemy Tharks.  John yells at Woola to go and get out of harm’s way.  Woola just stands there and is prepared to fight alongside him.  They both run towards their attackers and engage in battle.  I think I nearly cheered out loud when Woola, who is able to run really fast, lunged at an attacker and takes him down.  Woola went from loving and silly pet to badass in two seconds.

The performances across the board were all pretty good.  Taylor Kitsch worked for me as John Carter.  After seeing him as Gambit in the god-awful X-Men Origins: Wolverine, I was not a fan at all of the man.  He won me over in John Carter, though the jury is still out on whether I would enjoy him in anything else.  Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris was very enjoyable.  Her character was the anchor for me throughout the film and she did a good job playing a strong fighter while retaining a sense of fragility.  Fans of HBO’s Rome will be in for a treat when they see James Purefoy playing right hand man to Ciaran Hinds, a similar relationship they had while playing Mark Antony and Caesar, respectively.  Willem Dafoe, Mark Strong, Dominic Cooper and Samantha Morton all put in solid performances, even if you can’t recognize some of them, though Dafoe’s voice gives him away as the leader of the Tharks, Tars Tarkas.

Now as far as the title goes, even though the film was originally called John Carter of Mars before Disney shortened it, I think the change to John Carter works for the movie once you’ve seen the whole film.  When the movie ends, a new title card appears before the credits displaying the original title, John Carter of Mars.  I think this works in that at the very beginning of the movie, we meet John Carter, a man that has lost his family and his purpose for why he exists.  By the time, you see John Carter at the end of the movie, he’s been re-invigorated with purpose and has found love.  He’s essentially found where he belongs and doesn’t hesitate in leaving his life on Earth behind.  He becomes John Carter of Mars.  It’s a small touch but one that I quite enjoyed.

It’s easy to see that Disney didn’t really know how to sell John Carter exactly.  They were afraid to sell it as the movie it really is, a fun swashbuckling sci-fi adventure.  The movie really is engaging and the more that I think about the film, the more I realize I really enjoyed the hell out of it.  The film has some definite flaws but those are over-written by a lot of good moments in the movie.  I honestly would really like to see more from this Martian world.  I’d like to see more of John and Dejah and I’d love to see more of John and Woola.  So don’t let the poor marketing fool you, John Carter is worth seeing.  Whether or not you choose to pay the extra money for 3D is up to you but I sincerely hope you see the movie in the theater either way.  The world of John Carter deserves to be seen on the big screen with great theater sound.  It’s a big adventure that you can’t simply watch at home, it must be experienced the way grand adventures are meant to be seen, on an epic scale.

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One Comment on “Review: John Carter”

  1. CMrok93 March 9, 2012 at 11:38 pm #

    Despite occasional moments of silliness, the old-fashioned sense of adventure and brilliantly rendered aliens elevate this above other derivative big-budget sci-fi fare. I still wished that Kitsch did a lot better in this lead role but he was only there for eye-candy really. Good review Ben. Check out mine when you can.

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